Orchid History

Useful Links:
Fossilized Bee With Orchid Pollen
The History of Vanilla

Natural History

As one of the oldest flowering plants, orchids have developed a complex relationship with their pollinating counterparts. Their colors, shapes and smells have made them cunning attractors of specific insects (and in some cases animals) that will transport their pollen packets (pollinia) from one plant to another.

Interestingly, as a true perennial, orchids can continue to survive in the wild without this pollination process at all. A common mode of spreading is the very same method that orchid collectors have used from the beginning of their trade: division. As epiphytes (plants that grow on trees) it is not uncommon to have a part of the host tree, or a part of the orchid plant itself, break off in high winds, storms or other adverse situations. These parts of orchid plants that break off and spread across a forest continue to thrive as plants in their own right wherever they land, as long as it is hospitable to their specific needs.

orchid history timeline


Orchids and humans have a long relationship:

  • The ancient Greeks deemed certain orchids to be aphrodisiacs.
  • The Totonic people of modern-day Mexico, and then the Aztecs that conquered them, cultivated the seed pods of the Vanilla orchid as a flavoring. It has since become one of the most popular flavorings in the world.
  • Oregon Inland Plateau natives used the Goodyera oblongata orchid as a medicine for numerous purposes.

Charles Darwin - studied orchids extensivelySCIENTIFIC STUDY
Renowned biologist Charles Darwin wrote volumes on orchids and their pollination. Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar is sometimes called “Darwin’s Orchid” because he posited from its composition that a specific moth must exist with an unprecedented 13 inch long proboscis in order to pollinate it. Twenty-one years after Darwin’s death this moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, was documented with its amazingly long proboscis. It was only a few years ago that this moth was captured on film via night-vision photography.

During the mid-19th Century Victorian era “orchid hunters” served to popularize the orchid among horticulturists but also plundered much native orchid habitat. One of the most prominent figures in the Orchid Mania era was Frederick Sander who served as Queen Victoria’s “royal orchid grower”. He employed numerous orchid hunters to bring to England the exotic orchids of South America. While many of the orchids we grow today are named after these hunters there was little concern among them for orchid conservation. One of Sander’s orchid hunters, Josef Warscewicz, even boasted that he plundered all of Quito and Cuenca of its orchids. Hybridization of orchids became very popular during this era and it was Sanders that published the first list of orchid hybrids.

Most of today’s orchid collectors give much more thought to orchid habitat conservation than their Orchid Mania predecessors. Orchids have been included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While CITES has proven to be more effective for animals than orchids, and in some way has worked to the detriment of orchid conservation, its enactment shows that today’s generation is at least concerned about the preservation of the orchid. Numerous orchid conservation organizations exist on the national and international stage. These include organizations focusing on in situ conservation (preserving native habitat) and ex situ conservation (propagating species in a greenhouse setting).